As those familiar with the experience will attest, applying for a patent is often not a quick process. It takes time for a patent office to process an application, perform a search on relevant prior art and conduct an examination on whether an invention should be granted a patent. This delay can be frustrating for applicants, who would prefer to be able to commercialise their Intellectual Property as soon as possible.

In recognition of applicants’ desires, the European Patent Office (EPO) launched the ‘Early Certainty’ initiative in 2014 to attempt to speed up the patent granting process – initially to speed up delivery of search results, but revised in 2016 to speed up substantive examination and opposition. The EPO’s Quality Report 2017 (found here), published this week, reports on the progress towards achieving these goals.

According to the report, within the past two years the ‘search timeliness target’ to deliver a search report within a median of six months was met. The EPO report further progress on reducing examination and opposition timescales, with the pendency time in examination reduced to 22.1 months (with a target of 12 months by 2020), and the duration of the opposition procedure reduced to 22.4 months (with a target of 15 months).

This progress in pendency will be welcome news to applicants who wish to receive some degree of certainty early in the patent application procedure. Further, given that it is not unheard of for a case to be pending at the EPO for many years, any effort to reduce examination times is appreciated.

However, applicants and patent attorneys are ever mindful that this continued progress may be a double edged sword – it is no doubt a challenge for EPO examiners to continue to increase their output without sacrificing quality of examination. The EPO has a worldwide reputation for high quality work during search and examination, and the work of EPO examiners is frequently re-used in other patent offices around the world.

The Quality Report 2017 provides some reassurance that the EPO is taking such concerns seriously, including positive steps toward quality assurance. We in the profession are therefore hopeful that the progress in timeliness at the EPO can continue to be made without sacrificing the high quality for which it is well respected across the world.

Timeliness is an integral part of the EPO's quality policy. In 2017, the Office achieved substantial reductions in the time needed to complete search, examination and opposition procedures. For example in the area of search, the EPO has already managed to reach (and even surpass) its goal of establishing a comprehensive search and written opinion within six months from filing of the application with the EPO